Highlands: Out with the Old, In with the New

Photo courtesy of Walt Gunther

Dear Hartsgroves, Parkers, Mounts and other families centuries old in Highlands:

I’m sorry to be writing this to you because I’m afraid you’ve been pretty lax and it just might be too late. But you know the Highlands you grew up in, the Highlands where your parents grew up, where your grandfather clammed and your great grandma worked in the shucking plants?

Well, You’re losing that town, and Highlands in the 21st century might not be the Highlands that made you proud and strong to be its product.

You see, there are lots of new folks in town. Now, while that’s always a good thing, and you did always welcome new people, it’s different now. Well, I say you always welcomed people, but the truth be known, and you’re smiling thinking of this yourself as you read this, you didn’t always accept or welcome them right away.

Photo courtesy of the Bahrs Family

I remember the day I got married. I was a very excited, very much in love 18-year old; Jimmy was a very handsome 23 year old, home from the Merchant Marine to work with his dad on the railroad and enter the Army during Korea. He asked if we could be married in his church, OLPH on the hill, because he wanted to show me something right after the mass. I agreed.

On that sunny beautiful morning in May 1955, he put his arm around me as we stood on the front steps of OLPH coming out of church, each with our shiny gold wedding bands on. He told me to look at the ocean and then told me his love for me was deeper, wider than that ocean. Then he told me to look closer, look at all the houses downtown, look at all the people, the streets, everything. “These are the people who are going to love you, “ he said, “who are going to help us raise our family.”

It wasn’t until later that he told me it might take a while for them to like me. “They’ve got to get to know you,” he said, “they don’t like just anybody.”

It did take a while, but Jimmy was right. You did end up liking me. And for certain, you all did help us raise our children, teaching them through example what neighbors are like, what friends are, the difference between right and wrong, the value of education.

You taught me how to dig clams with my toes, how to shuck them, eat them raw, or cook then a dozen different ways. You led by example, by experience, and you shared because of your great affection for new people in town.

Photo courtesy of Walt Gunther

You taught me, so I could teach my children, the value of pride in a hard day’s work, the importance of working together, of respecting each other’s talents.

Somehow, however, founding families, it’s gotten away from all this. And so many people don’t know the full stories about so many things. So many people don’t know the connections between people, either through blood or money.

I noticed this the other day when I saw a local weekly newspaper account of the public hearing meeting on the redevelopment area. I was at the meeting and I questioned whether history, or the significance of certain buildings had been considered. No, they weren’t, because the state criteria didn’t call for that.

So the state wants to have us redevelop a shabby, meets-the-criteria of being really crummy and needing help area, (that’s what they think not I!) . But does anyone in town anymore know which buildings have history, mystery, intrigue or memories important to the people in Highlands and hidden inside? Will that even be considered if an owner..many of them are very new and under company names, rehabs a building and erases the history they don’t know.

That means no one in the future will never have the chance to know either. The Highlands you created is changing so you won’t even know it.

The newspaper quoted resident Charles Larue, owner of Char-Ron Contracting, who said he was “in favor of the redevelopment plan for many reasons – one being… various vacant properties..which could bring new businesses.

"As a developer, personally, I am going to hold land. I’m not going to purchase and then build and then sell. I want long-term tenants,” said Larue. “I want bowling alleys, movie theaters – all these different things that you guys said, I want those.” The paper quoted him accurately, I heard him say it.

But I didn’t hear him say he’s the agent for the sale of a house on Second Street. Not sure, but if he’s the agent for the real estate company selling the land, he’s either the owner or a licensed real estate person. The house is on Second Street. Old timers, I’m not putting down Second St. but did you ever think you’d see the time a house on Second St. that sold for a couple of thousand dollars a year or so ago, is on the market for just under one million dollars?

Is he selling it now because he thinks the price would go down once redevelopment is approved? Or is he just offering someone a bargain. I also didn’t hear him say he’s the nephew of the chief of police. Not that I think he should give that information as part of a public hearing. But don’t you see? The Highlands people of today don’t know the relationships among so many people who own land in the area, or their connections with the property.

The mayor conducted a very good meeting for that public hearing, certainly sorry more of you weren’t there for it. But everybody knows she owns a commercial business in the area. Can she really vote on something that so directly affects her and differently from how it affects almost everyone in town? I suppose she can, what with the borough paying an attorney to advise council members’ every move. And he apparently thought it was okay for her to vote a while back to give that $10,000 to the Business Partnership when she herself is a member of the Partnership. So I suppose it’s ok for her to vote on something once again that would directly affect her more than most other residents of Highlands.

Of course they don’t have to mention it, but for anyone who wants to read through all the pages, it’s easy to see that a few people own more than one or two pieces of property in that development area. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and I’m glad they’re putting money into Highlands, if they are. But why would they be buying up land if Highlands is so shabby?

I wonder out loud once again, why some people think this area is really all that shabby. Houses just outside the area are selling for a million dollars. That’s one million dollars. Downtown Highlands. Where the water rises on moon tides, hurricanes and strong nor’easters. That doesn’t sound very shabby to me.

So my Founding families, all of you who did not attend that development meeting, who didn’t say much about your borough hall being moved up the hill to the other side of the highway, you have come full circle.

Remember when the Dick Schwartz’ and Ray Ramerez’ ran the town? They were good people and they worked hard for Highlands. But they were the ‘newbies.” You complained about them, you said they didn’t know enough about the town. But in the end, once you got to know them, you accepted them. And they did ok for your town. They didn’t change it so much you couldn’t recognize it; they didn’t try to come in and buy lots of pieces of property and then tell you the place is terrible, in need of outside help. They listened to you, and to other ‘new’ people in town as well. They adopted your ideas; they saved the things that were important to you. You went to the meetings, fought, argued, yelled, occasionally threw a punch or two. But in the end, it was still your town.

If you don’t start paying more attention and getting more involved, well, you might not recognize the old Highlands again.


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